Laying My Vengeance Upon Thee
March 7, 2008 § 4 Comments
Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.
**Reading next: E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.**
The connection I’m going to try to make here is probably tenuous at best, but the connection in question struck such a chord when I read a certain passage tonight that I have to spin it out a little.
Nat begins to blossom as a preacher as, paradoxically, the hate he feels for white people begins to fester and dominate his life in earnest. A poor, white “sotomite” named Ethelred T. Brantley overhears Nat preaching to a group of slaves in town one day and asks Nat to save him, however possible. After a little discussion, Nat recommends a week of fasting and meditation, at the end of which he will baptize him.
When the day of baptism arrives, they find the pond they’ve arranged to use surrounded by a crowd of antagonistic white folks. But Nat pushes on, and the passage he recites before dunking Ethelred is from Ezekiel (37:6): “I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the Lord…”
Maybe you see where I’m going here: when I read that, I instantly thought of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction. Allow me a fanboy rant at this point: this is, quite simply, one of the greatest film performances of all time. It’s such a perfect match of role, actor, and film that I don’t think Sam’s ever quite gotten over it. (As an aside, it is, in retrospect, positively ridiculous that all the hype at the time was about Travolta, and that Miramax (I assume) made the decision to enter Travolta on the Oscar ballots for Best Actor, and Jackson for Best Supporting Actor. Go ahead, watch the movie again. Tell me who’s leading and who’s supporting; tell me who the true star of the movie is.)
And of course, Jackson’s recitations of Jules’ version of Ezekiel 25:17 at the beginning and end of the film are the greatest parts of the film. (Here it is, very little of it actually in Ezekiel: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”) It is, on paper, more or less a ridiculous speech. And it could have been really bad, just this really bad Tarantinified blaxploitation reference, but when you see the movie: damn! It’s real, it’s fierce, it’s utterly cryptic and compelling and you can feel Jules all the way through it. I mean, the crescendo of “and you will KNOW my name is the LORD!” in the first speech compared to the taut, thoughtful delivery near the end: it’s absolutely perfect.
Interesting, comparing Styron’s Nat Turner and Tarantino/Jackson’s Jules. Avenging angels, both, speaking from opposite ends of the civil rights movement. Both have developed a more or less homemade, individual, somewhat mystical religion for themselves: Nat sees visions of black angels in the sky, calling him to wreak havoc, and Jules recites his pseudo-Biblical verse before blowing his employer’s enemies away, then decides to hang it up and “walk the Earth” after a junkie misses him at point-blank range. Both are perplexed by their relationship to God, unsure what they can know about him but sure of what they are being told to do. And both, in spite of their rage and their guilt, are (as Jules says) “tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”
Coincidentally, both also deliver their Ezekiel quotes to white men whose salvation or damnation they hold in their hands. Nat’s verse is couched in the anger and wrath of Ezekiel just as Jules’ is, but it’s a creative verse; “you shall know my name is the Lord” here is comforting, life-affirming, if still slightly threatening. Jules’ is, at first, pure destruction, but he shifts his view at the end of the movie, trying to glean a creative (or at least non-destructive) message from it.
Styron and the character embodied by Jackson have, I think, similar motives here in their creations as a whole. Jules, looking back on a life of violence and anger, is trying to reconcile himself to that past, and find a peaceful way. Styron, in the midst of the civil rights (and Black Power) movement, is writing about slavery and trying (I suspect) to connect the violent, ugly, oppressive past with the unfocused, unharnessed anger he saw around him, and find its motives, and its alternatives.